Origin Story: shaadi.com

The original logo I created. (yes, that font is Comic Sans!)

After years of answering questions about my role in originally co-founding shaadi.com, I figured it would be easier to pen the origin story of shaadi.com. Hopefully, this will clear up any misconceptions of its early days.

The idea for shaadi.com really started on August 9, 1995. That was the day of the Netscape IPO and what would be the beginning of the dot com euphoria. I had just graduated from Indiana University (IU) in May 1995 and was going to start working at Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture) just days after the Netscape IPO.

Another big event in August 1995 was the launch of Microsoft Windows 95 on August 24, 1995. This was the big consumer launch of the Windows operating system to move it into the hands of the average consumer and not just for businesses and geeks. Even today when I hear the song “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones it takes me back to August 1995 in Chicago.

Back to Netscape, the IPO was a big event for me since I had been using Netscape products before they were called Netscape. Initially, the browser was called NCSA Mosaic and all the tech people on the IU campus were using it because it was created up the road at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).  The team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) included Marc Andreessen who went on to start the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Before Mosaic, everything was text-based using the Gopher protocol. However, with Mosaic, everything appeared graphical and was the start of the internet that we are all familiar with now.

After seeing the Netscape IPO rocket into orbit my brother-in-law, Sandeep Jain, and I kicked around many ideas we felt the internet would transform. The two ideas we kept coming back to were jobs and matrimonial listings. Both of these areas were already large revenue generators for print media and we felt a digital version would be a great business disruptor. In the end, we decided to focus on matrimonials.

So in early 1996, I bought the domain name shaadi.com from the only place you could at the time – Network Solutions. And we were in business…well not exactly. Someone still had to build the website and I was tapped to do it. I didn’t expect a lot of traffic initially so I decided to create the website as a static site, meaning any changes to the site had to be manually coded/changed. I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but I launched version 1 of the website using Microsoft’s FrontPage which had just acquired the software from a company called Vermeer Technologies.

Version 1 of shaadi.com was officially launched on October 1, 1996 – you can check out an archived copy of it. (If you look closely at the bottom of the page, you’ll see we used keyword stacking to get ranked higher in search engines like AltaVista, Lycos, etc. This was years before Google and their PageRank algorithm which killed that technique to game the search engines.)

Within hours of the launch, we started to get traffic and people were actually filling out the form and putting their details online!  I approached many universities around the area and asked for a list of student email addresses and they gave it to me, remember this was back in 1996 when no one seemed to care about privacy protection. I initially targeted the Big Ten universities (located in the midwest region of the US) which had a large Southeast Asian population, those students in turn helped to spread the word virally to the East and West coast universities. (Today it’s called viral user acquisition strategy, back then it was just “getting hits on the site”.)

Two things quickly emerged:
1. having a static website was not viable because a lot of time was spent on manually editing the HTML pages
2. It turned out that individuals did care about privacy protection and wanted some level of privacy

There was no way we could continue operating the website without looking to the future. It was time to create a dynamic website and give people some sort of privacy. The technology stack (as tech people like to call it) consisted of:

– Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS) as the web server
– Active Server Pages (ASP) for the web pages
– Microsoft Access for the database (oddly enough, I still have that original database)

I picked Microsoft because the alternative was Perl and honestly that just seemed too esoteric at the time. Back then, technology was difficult and marketing was easy whereas today it’s the exact opposite. During the summer of 1997, I bought an “ASP for Dummies” book and started to code the dynamic website. By day I was a consultant at Andersen Consulting and at night Sandeep and I were burning the midnight oil to launch version 2 of the website. We also allowed people to use an email alias such as [email protected] that would point to their real email address, that was a massive hit and it helped to get more people onto the website.

As luck would have it, I was assigned to the Iridium project based in Scottsdale, Arizona and my roommate was Vijay Shah. Vijay was busy building an e-commerce portal called IndiaPlaza.com. Here were two guys building one of the largest Indian e-commerce portals at the time (Vijay) and one of the largest Indian matrimonial websites (me) all out of an Oakwood rental apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Since traffic was growing exponentially we decided to look at outsourcing the technology stack and focus on other aspects of the business so I met with Ruksun Technologies in Koregaon Park, Pune, India. However, I quickly realized our core strength should be technology and decided we should continue to own the technology stack. (sidenote: Osho set up his ashram in Koregaon Park because of my grandfather who was a loyal follower of Osho. After Osho got kicked out of the US in 1984, my grandfather mentioned Pune might be a good place for Rajneesh to set up his ashram and he did.)

If you ask anyone who was knee-deep in the internet business at this time it was a crazy period. I made the mistake of thinking that this period would come again. My thought process was: I graduated from college in ’95, bought a domain name in ’96, did some gorilla marketing in ’97, and ramped up shaadi.com to be the largest matrimonial website in the world by ’99. I thought we could do this again and again for all sorts of verticals – shampoo, rinse and repeat.

In late 1999, I was approached by Siddharth Mehta about purchasing the website. I recently left Andersen Consulting for Cisco Systems and was drinking the internet Kool-Aid. Cisco was on a high as well and the stock was going through the roof, I was pretty sure I was going to retire within a couple years with all my stock options (haha!). On March 27, 2000, Cisco hit a high of $80.06 briefly making it the most valuable company in the world.  I decided to sell shaadi.com and Siddharth flew out to Los Angeles to finalize everything, we met at 11111 Santa Monica Boulevard (sidenote: In 2008 Tesla opened their very first showroom just next door). A few weeks later it was official, I changed the contact information on the domain name from myself to Siddharth. We had just sold our baby.

Between when we sold shaadi.com and 2001, the internet economy collapsed and took everything with it down the toilet…including stock options. In 2001, Siddharth sold shaadi.com to its current owner – Anupam Mittal. Coincidently, Anupam was running Satyanet and started the matrimonial website Sagaai.com in 1996. Once he bought shaadi.com he rebranded everything under the new domain name and continued to lead it as the largest matrimonial website in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s